Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series: "Violent Separatism: Lessons from the American Civil War” by Don H. Doyle

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H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the fifth post of its “Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series”, which looks at issues of fragmentation, sovereignty, and self-determination in a multi-disciplinary perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Don H. Doyle (University of South Carolina), deals with violent separatism, drawing extensively from the case of the American Civil War. Please feel free to participate in the discussion by commenting on the piece.


Like nationalism, secession has left a long, bloody trail through modern history. The nationalist ideologies of the nineteenth century that proclaimed “we are a people” distinctive from our rulers or neighbors, and, therefore, “we must have a state of our own” have just as often buttressed separatist rebellions against existing states as they have given succor to the cause of national solidarity within states. Nationalism and separatism are close cousins, at once supporting and bedeviling one another.

Nowhere has this paradox of nationalism and separatism been more violently apparent than in the history of the United States, a nation born in separatist rebellion in the 1770s and nearly destroyed by secession in the 1860s.

The Southern Fire-eaters of 1861 were eager to portray secession as a peaceful, legitimate form of withdrawal, not an aggressive rebellion and by no means an overthrow of the existing state. They wanted nothing more than to demonstrate to their people, to the remaining United States, and to the world of nations that their intention was peaceful withdrawal—and for just cause—from a “compact” of states, as they put it, that now sought to tyrannize them.

Their opponents in President Abraham Lincoln’s administration were equally determined to brand the “so-called Confederacy,” as they insisted on calling it, as a band of treasonous rebels engaged in domestic insurrection. Francis Lieber, a German-born intellectual who was a fervent supporter of the Union cause, told Americans that their nation was a perpetual union, not some “political picnic to which the invited guest may go and carry his share of the viands or not, as he thinks fit, or the humor may move him.”[1] 

Lincoln insisted in his first inaugural address that there was no just cause for rebellion, and he promised: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”[2]

He went further to argue against the very principle of secession. It was the “essence of anarchy,” for no nation could govern its people if it were constantly threatened with secession every time some discontented group decided it did not like the outcome of an election or an act of legislation.

Lincoln raised another point of profound importance to our day. Separation did not resolve human conflict within nations; it only transformed domestic strife into international conflagrations. “A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them.”[3]

Lincoln was anticipating the concept of “political divorce” later picked up by Alan Buchanan and other theorists who treat secession as a normal feature of human society. Philosophers envision a world of amicable divorce adjudicated by law and reason. Lincoln foretold a more frightening vision of a world of a thousand squabbling nations divorced from one another politically but still cohabitating territorially.

Indeed, today's family of nations owes its membership as often to divorce as to perpetual union. About half of the members of the UN can be said to have originated in break-away states. For all the many successful break-away states, at least as many have failed, lingering faintly in historical memory or smoldering in resentment waiting to reignite.

Since the 1980s, most scholars of nationalism have come to view the nation-state as a modern invention rather than as the natural product of organic human identities deeply rooted in blood, soil, and memory. Nations are “imagined communities” based on “invented traditions,” according to the prevailing wisdom of our day.  

Modern nations typically identify their origin in a struggle to liberate their people from unjust—often foreign—rule and to unify their territory and people under the banner of a single national community. Nationalist narratives often cast the creation of the nation-state as the predestined culmination of a historic struggle for independence and unity. Once the foundation myth takes root, they nurture the idea of the nation as a fixed, permanent entity. The challenge to a nation’s unity, from within or without, are interpreted as hostile threats to the national right to exist.

To look back over the long and bloody history of separatist rebellions and civil wars is to realize that these imagined destinies of eternal national unity were often nothing more than fantasies. Some nation-states break up because of deep, smoldering differences of language or religion or competition over natural resources within their borders. Others come apart over what may seem to be transient, even accidental, conflicts over policies and leadership. Political divorce has rarely been predicted out loud at the wedding, and even more rarely has it been amicable, but by now it has certainly become commonplace if not altogether normal.

America’s secession crisis proved to be far from amicable. In April 1861, the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina gathered to witness the beginning of a long and horrendous civil war. They cheered and paraded; no one understood what was coming, but these events set off the deadliest conflict over secession in modern history. An estimated 750,000 men died in the American Civil War, the proportional equivalent of about seven million casualties in today’s national population.

It was the bloodiest conflict between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I, at least in the Western world. China’s Taiping Rebellion, raging at the same time as America’s war with itself, dwarfs all other civil wars in the carnage.

It was not until a century later, when Biafra’s failed attempt to separate from Nigeria brought death to over a million people, that the American Civil War would take second place as history's most deadly war over secession. How many lives have been lost in conflicts over the separation of peoples and territories is difficult to determine, but suffice it to say that separatism has been among the leading causes of warfare in our times. The bloodshed is at once powerful testimony to the powerful impulse of peoples seeking nations of their own and the fierce resistance of existing nations to concede sovereignty.   


Don H. Doyle is McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, editor of Secession as an International Phenomenon and author of The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War.



[1] Francis Lieber, What Is Our Constitution—League, Pact or Government? Two Lectures on the Constitution of the United States…To Which is Appended an Address on Secession (New York: Columbia College, 1861), 45.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861.

[3] Ibidem.

Don Doyle's elegant essay suggests even more paradoxes than those explored in his essay. One of them is the paradox of the very creation of the United States of America. The initial colonization - as well as the later expansion of the United States - was carried in the form of conquest, punctuated by unequal treaties with the native population. One could thus argue that the initial units from which the United States was created were results of conquest which excluded native populations from political control of the conquered land. The second step, following the initial conquest, was secession from the metropolis - which was again achieved by military force. Political control over the land of the future state was thus achieved through organized coercion and violence. The third step, however, was voluntary: political representatives of the (white) population in control of the land voluntarily created the United States. The paradox here is that this initially voluntary creation - the only one in this process of the US state creation - by 1861 could be preserved only by a massive deployment of military force. One would have expected that at least the voluntary created state could be maintained without the use of force - and, if it could not, that it could be voluntarily dissolved as it was created. But, as Doyle shows in his essay, this was not to be.

At this stage, one can compare the US with the USSR. The latter was created by the military conquest: the Bolshevik-led Red Army supported by a variety of local Bolshevik-organized armed uprisings conquered, in a war that lasted from 1917 to 1922, the territory of the former Russian empire which was contested by a large number of separate military forces. It was a state created by a single revolutionary party for the sake of that party as a potential staging post for the world revolution. However, its official origins are to be found in an apparently voluntary union, the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR, signed by the delegations of its four federal units in December 1922 and based, allegedly, on the free will of their peoples. The USSR was dissolved by the presidents of three of the original four federal units on 8 December 1991 (the fourth original unit, the Transcaucasian federal unit no longer existed); this was confirmed by the Alma Alta protocol of 21 December 1991, signed by 11 out of the 15 federal units of the USSR (the rest seceded earlier and refused to sign the protocol). The state created by military conquest and protracted civil war thus voluntarily dissolved once the (formerly) revolutionary party peacefully lost power on most of its territory.

I am not sure what lessons, if any, we can draw from these two examples of voluntary/involuntary union and dissolution. Both seem to me results of a variety of historical contingencies which can tell us little, if anything, about future dissolutions, secessions or unions.

Many thanks to Don Doyle for his thoughtful piece and to Alexandar Pavković for his excellent comment. Please feel welcome to continue debating and discussing these issues on this thread, and to join the conversation if you have any further comments to make. The next post of our Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series will be published on March 20.